Learning Technology

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2018 by telescoper

I’m just taking a tea break in the Data Innovation Research Institute. Today has been a very day as I have to finish off a lot of things by tomorrow, for reasons that I’ll make clear in my next post…

It struck me when I was putting on the brew how much more technology we use for teaching now than when I was a student. I think many of my colleagues make far more effective use of the available technology than I do, but I do my best to overcome my Luddite tendencies. Reflecting on today’s teaching makes me feel just a little less like a dinosaur.

This morning I gave a two-hour lecture on my Cardiff module Physics of the Early Universe which, as usual, I recorded using our Panopto system. Although there was a problem with some of the University’s central file storage this morning, which made me a bit nervous about whether the lecture recording would work, it did. Predictably I couldn’t access the network drives from the PC in the lecture theatre, but I had anticipated that and took everything I needed on a memory stick.

After a short break for lunch I checked the lecture recording and made it available for registered students via the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), known to its friends as Learning Central. I use this as a sort of repository of stuff connected with the module: notes, list of textbooks, problem sets, model answers, instructions and, of course, recorded lectures. The students also submit their coursework assignment (an essay) through this system, through the plagiarism detection software Turnitin.

This afternoon the students on my Computational Physics course in Maynooth University had a lab test, the first of four such tests, this one consisting of a short coding exercise. There are two lab sessions per week for this class, one on Thursdays (when I am normally in Maynooth to help supervise) and another on Tuesdays (when I am normally in Cardiff). I have a number of exercises, which are similar in scope but different in detail (to prevent copying) and the Tuesday lab has a completely different set of exercises from the Thursday one. In each exercise the students have to write a simple Python script to plot graphs of a function and its derivative (computed numerically) using matplotlib. The students upload their script and pictures of the plot to the VLE used in Maynooth, which is called Moodle.

In the manner of a TV chef announcing `here’s one I did earlier’, this a sample output produced by my `model’ code:

I wonder if you can guess of what function this is the derivative? By the way in this context `model’ does not mean `a standard of excellence’ but `an imitation of something’ (me being an imitation of a computational physicist). Anyway, students will get marks for producing plots that look right, but also for presenting a nice (commented!) bit of code

This afternoon I’m on Cardiff time but I was able to keep an eye on the submissions coming in to Moodle in case something went wrong. It seemed to work out OK, but the main problem now is that I’ve got 20-odd bits of code to mark! That will have to wait until I’m properly on Maynooth time!

Now, back to the grind…

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The Philharmonia Orchestra: Beethoven & Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on February 19, 2018 by telescoper

I spent yesterday afternoon at a very enjoyable concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music by Beethoven and Mahler given by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Principal Guest Conductor Jakub Hrůša. The picture above was taken about 10 minutes before the concert started, from my seat in Tier 1. Quite a few people arrived between then and the beginning of the performance, but there wasn’t a very big audience. St David’s Hall may have been less than half full but those who did come were treated to some fantastic playing.

The first half of the concert consisted of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (in C) with soloist Piotr Anderszewski. This work was actually composed after his Piano Concerto No. 2 but was published first. It consists of three movements, an expansive slow movement (marked Largo) sandwiched between two sprightly up-tempo movements, marked Allegro con brio and Rondo-Allegro Scherzando, respectively. I think the first part of the last movement, full of energy and wit, is the best part of this work and Anderszewski play it with genuine sparkle. His performance was very well received, and he rounded it off with a charming encore in the form of a piece for solo piano by Bartok.

After the wine break we returned to find the piano gone, and the orchestra greatly expanded for a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 , the fourth movement of which (the `Adagietto’) is probably Mahler’s best-known music (made famous by its use in Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice). This lovely movement is sometimes performed on its own – a practice Mahler himself encouraged – but I think it’s particularly powerful when heard in its proper context, embedded in a large orchestral work that lasts well over an hour.

Although nominally five movements, this work is really in three sections: the first section consists of the first two movements (the first starting with Trauermarsch (a funeral march), and the second a stormy and at times savage movement, punctuated with brief interludes of peace). The last section consists of the beautiful Adagietto 4th movement (played entirely on the strings) followed by an energetic and ultimately triumphant finale. In between there’s an extended Scherzo, which is (unusually for Mahler) rather light and cheerful. Roughly speaking this symphony follows a trajectory from darkness into light and, although it certainly doesn’t go in a straight line, and does start with a death march, this is undoubtedly one of Mahler’s cheerier works!

The Philharmonia Orchestra gave a very accomplished and passionate reading of this piece, with especially fine playing from the brass section (who have lot to do). The exuberant ending brought many members of the audience to their feet and rightly so, as it was a very fine performance – the best I’ve heard live of this work.

Today’s Earthquake in Wales

Posted in Uncategorized on February 17, 2018 by telescoper

Just after 2.30 this afternoon I felt a vibration of my house in Cardiff, initially like a heavy truck going outside but then a distinct ‘bump’. The whole house moved, but only for less than a second and no damage ensued.

I thought it was a minor tremor, and out of curiosity I looked on Twitter to see how widespread were the reports. The answer was very:

It seems it was an earthquake of Magnitude 4.7, centered near (or, presumably, under) Neath. That’s actually pretty big by UK standards.

Thankfully I don’t think anyone has been hurt.

Anyone else feel it?

P. S. I learned today that the Welsh word for ‘earthquake’ is daeargryn..

Flying back to Wales

Posted in Uncategorized on February 17, 2018 by telescoper

Today, as usual, I took the morning flight back from Dublin to Cardiff. This was the first time this year it’s been clear enough and light enough to see anything from the cabin so I took this snap our of the window as we reached the Welsh coast. You can see the curve of Cardigan Bay reasonably well.

The propeller was working, by the way…

Wild Man Blues

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on February 16, 2018 by telescoper

Time, I think, for some vintage jazz. This one doesn’t really need many words of introduction. It was recorded on May 7th 1927 in the Okeh Studios in Chicago by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven: Louis Armstrong (cornet), John Thomas (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Armstrong (piano), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), Pete Briggs (tuba), and Warren `Baby’ Dodds (drums). Two things are worth saying, though. One is that this piece is very modern-sounding for its time, in that there’s very little of the ensemble work that one associates with New Orleans jazz, just two extended solos by Louis and Johnny Dodds, and that those solos are both very free. The other is that Armstrong’s solo is so good that there were only a few soloists who could have taken over from him without creating an anti-climax. Fortunately, one of those men (Johnny Dodds) was in the studio and did just that, matching Satchmo in power and invention. Enjoy!

Windows Horror

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 16, 2018 by telescoper

This week was going reasonably well, I thought. The class test for my Computational Physics students yesterday went reasonably well; they even managed to upload their code and output to Moodle at the end.

However, when I came into work this morning and started up my laptop, which belongs to Cardiff University, it announced that it was doing a BIOS update. I sighed and then went to make a cup of tea while it did the job. When I got back I found I was locked out by BitLocker, the Windows 10 disk encryption feature that Cardiff University insist is used on its laptops.

There isn’t/wasn’t any USB disk attached to the machine, by the way, and I did try restarting the machine but that didn’t help. I can only infer that BitLocker can’t cope with a change at the BIOS level which, if true, is really pathetic.

Not having the required `recovery key’ (which I have never been given) and being informed by the FAQ that I would need a system administrator to supply it, I got in panicky touch with Cardiff’s IT services, but three hours later I still can’t get in. I do have my desktop (which runs Unix) so am not completely stymied, but I don’t have the files on my laptop. I was planning to work on some things on there today, but it looks like I won’t be able to. It even looks possible that all the data on this laptop is lost for good.

The thing I can’t help thinking about is how terrible this would be if I had been just about to give a talk at a conference….

WINDOWS UPDATE: I’m back into my laptop and have not lost any data (as far as I can tell). The problem is indeed a known conflict between BIOS and BitLocker, which I think is atrocious.

The Greatest Scarpia

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 15, 2018 by telescoper

Thursdays are always busy so today I’ll just put this here. It’s the great operatic baritone Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia in Tosca, a role he sang almost a thousand times in his career. This is the Te Deum scene, at the end of Act I, in which Scarpia after sending his men to follow Tosca to her lover Cavaradossi, he sings of his lustful desire as worshippers gather fora service at the Church in which the action takes place.

There have been many excellent interpreters of the role of Tosca (in which role I think Renata Tebaldi was every bit as good as Maria Callas) but Tito Gobbi (who sang the role with both Callas and Tebaldi) was the Scarpia of his age, and perhaps of any…